It has been difficult to comprehend the enigma that is Ryan Babel during his three years at Liverpool. His performances have been occasionally outstanding, but more frequently flaccid. Is he better as a striker or a winger? Does the Dutch international have the work ethic to fit into the style that Rafa Benitez has adopted at Anfield?
Just nine starts this season have suggested the Spanish manager still had misgivings. But while Fernando Torres, Alberto Aquilani and Steven Gerrard's forearm attracted attention in Monday's 4-1 win against Portsmouth, Babel gave a timely reminder of what he can offer too. As Benitez released the shackles with a more positive, attacking line-up against the league's bottom club, it made a difference to Babel's contribution.
On the left wing, he was a threat in attack with great link-up play, scored his fifth goal of the season, and tracked back to help his defence. There was an obvious display of confidence from a player who played back-to-back games for only the second time in a frustrating campaign which almost saw him leave in the January transfer window. He also had to apologise to Benitez after expressing his disappointment with a rant on Twitter about his exclusion for a game against Stoke.
Babel said: "Obviously you're always frustrated when you can't show people what you can do. But that's not just me, that's every player. But that's the past and now I want to go forward here at Liverpool. With every game you'll start to see the best of me." Babel's improved attitude has been welcomed by Benitez with Liverpool facing a testing two months, starting with tonight's visit of Lille in their last-16 Europa League second-leg match.
Despite his erratic form, Benitez knows that Babel can unlock defences, just like Torres has done on a more consistent basis. The Spanish striker is the player the French side fear most and their defender Adil Rami said: "He's good in the air, he's strong and he imposes himself. Above all, you can't let him turn because when he does he runs at 2,000 kilometres an hour." It will be Lille's first visit to Anfield and bigger and better teams have struggled to cope in such a daunting atmosphere.
Pepe Reina, the Liverpool keeper, said: "We are asking more than ever for the fans to get behind us." Fulham hope that will be the case too at Craven Cottage when Juventus visit. The Italians have a 3-1 lead, but Mark Schwarzer said the home support can play their part by inspiring them to a famous European triumph. "The Italian teams are not used to playing in this type of stadium, they're not used to the type of 'in-your-face' football and pressure that we can create, and also the support that we have at home," said the Australian keeper.
"Hopefully it's all going to work to our advantage. It's all about having the self-belief that you can go and win the game. "We're more than capable of doing that. The style of play and the type of pressure that we can apply at home is something that can work very much in our favour. "If we put them under enough pressure and perform well on the night, there's every chance that we can cause an upset."